Feast for the eyes

Words: Chris Dwyer    


As social media creates new cookery stars and colourful culinary trends, it is changing our expectations and even the way we eat and enjoy our food

It’s a well-accepted truism that we eat a dish with the eyes before allowing a morsel to pass our lips. While beautiful presentation and creative ways of plating have been around for decades, in recent years the rise of social media has influenced chefs and restaurateurs like never before. New food trends can be shared with an audience of millions instantly, thus having a huge impact on the way people eat and enjoy their food. And with hugely popular, visually-led platforms such as Instagram, in many cases, looks can be everything.

Above: Rainbow-layered desserts are part of the rainbow food trend (Siim V / Alamy Stock Photo); Cloud eggs have gained a cult following on Instagram (Siim V / Alamy Stock Photo); Pastel-coloured unicorn food is one of the many micro trends currently grabbing the Insta headlines (Stocksy)

Given the enormous impact that it has had on the world of food, it’s remarkable to think that Instagram was only launched in 2010. Yet it has become by far the most important social media platform for chefs, restaurants and food producers to share and promote their work, surpassing even Facebook and Twitter, while also helping humble home cooks to become media stars who can rival established professionals.

A decade ago, chances are that only a handful of restaurant diners would have used their phone to photograph their dishes. They may have even received quizzical looks in doing so. Today, you’ll quite possibly get those same looks if you’re not snapping your entrée. The number of foodie Instagram posts is rising by tens of millions every year, provoking restaurants to rethink their approach to stand out among the fierce online competition, where photographs operate as cultural currency. The days of chefs forbidding pictures of their food are over — now, snapping and sharing are actively encouraged.

Transforming your humble bowl of quinoa or fruit into an image liked by tens of thousands of people is no mean feat. One Instagrammer arguably more qualified than many to comment is Ella Woodward, otherwise known as Deliciously Ella. Her 1.1 million Instagram followers came the hard way. In 2011, at the age of 20, she was diagnosed with Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, which affects the heartbeat, digestion, circulation and immune system. She decided to change the way she was living to see if it would help the effects of her illness, cutting out processed foods and taking up a whole food, plant-based diet.

She started documenting her recipes on a blog, then on Instagram:

It was my way of turning a negative into a positive. I wanted to show how easy it is to create beautiful, nourishing and, most importantly, delicious meals from simple, natural ingredients.

Above: Bestselling cook Ella Woodward (Sophia Spring)

The approach has worked — and then some. Since achieving superstar status on Instagram, she has had the fastest-selling debut cookbook ever, now published in 16 languages, and runs three delis in London. Deliciously Ella has also spurred the rise of certain “Instatrends”; dishes and creations that spawn imitators around the world. Her attractively arranged bowls of superfood-rich salads are one example. Even if the term “Buddha Bowl” wasn’t her own, it became an Instagram meme and today tens of thousands of photos of these vibrant salads are hashtagged daily.

Another popular Instatrend is #rainbowfood. As the name suggests, the more outrageously colourful pudding the dish, the better, and more than 70,000 people and rising have posted their kaleidoscopic creations on Instagram. It started in the UK just last year, with the Beigel Shop on London’s Brick Lane. Inspired by a New York trend, it started selling rainbow-coloured bagels — and ended up clearing a whopping 1,500 a day. Instagrammers took note and from the humble bagel followed sushi, pizza, pancakes, cocktails, waffles, cupcakes and cookies — the chances are if you’ve eaten or drunk it, someone has turned it into an explosion of colour.

In Singapore, café and caterers HarriAnns has been in business for more than 70 years and rainbow cakes have been a long-time fixture on its menu as a kids’ favourite in the Lion City. A rainbow food version of lapis, a traditional dessert that can be peeled away and eaten layer by colourful layer, has proved to be picture-perfect for the Instagram generation.

Over in Hong Kong, the residential district of Tsuen Wan has been drawing in foodies thanks to the rainbow grilled cheese sandwich at Kala Toast. Vegetable purées, including carrot, red cabbage and spinach, were mixed into the cheese to produce the undeniably attention-grabbing picture.

Aesthetically inspired micro trends are popping up all the time, from fluffy cloud eggs and sculpted avocado roses to pitch-black charcoal baked goods and pastel-coloured “unicorn” foods. Of course, it’s not all colourful trends and gimmicky snaps. For professional chefs and restaurants, Instagram success — or indeed on Pinterest, Facebook and elsewhere — can mean real as well as social currency. Many people use Instagram to plan where to eat next and what to order. Who hasn’t seen a “#foodporn” post and thought they’d love to try it? Then again; does this mean we are changing how we eat by sacrificing taste for the most photogenic dishes?

Above: An eye-pleasing smoothie (Room The Agency / Alamy stock photo); Avocado roses (Pia Violeta Pasat / Alamy stock photo); Chia Pudding (Deliciously); Charcoal coffee (Milly Jane)

Hokkaido-born Hideki Endo is Executive Chef at Matsuhisa Paris at Le Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris. He has introduced legendary chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s unparalleled art of Japanese gastronomy to France and is clear that the customer (and the dish) always comes first. “I learned cooking philosophy from Nobu, who taught us that the most important thing is to make your customers happy,” says Hideki. “For that reason, I don’t think about Instagram when I cook. But that doesn’t stop me uploading pictures to my Instagram account — it’s a helpful tool to get our name and dishes known all over the world.”

However, he adds that Instagram has helped to draw in diners and even refine his plating: “A lot of customers ask me for specific dishes they’ve seen on Instagram. It really works for promoting our hotel and its restaurants; the impact is undeniable. For us as chefs, we are like artists for plating, so there are things I can learn from Instagram such as angle, colour, lighting and so on.”

Above: Le Royal Monceau Paris Raffles Chef : Hideki Endo (Romeo Balancourt)

It begs the question: which dish served at Le Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris, has proved most popular for the hotel’s almost 50,000 Instagram followers? “Japanese wagyu nigiri with truffles — people love the combination!” Exceptional ingredients, in the hands of a true master, deliver an aesthetic to match.

Above: Japanese wagyu nigiri with truffles (Hideki Enzo)

On the other side of the world in the Far East, Eko Zulfikar is Executive Sous Chef at Raffles Jakarta. The hotel is known for its creative approach to cuisine. “We create and choose a great component of flavours, building intricate masterpieces of colour and texture that sprawl across the plate in pristine decadence,” he says. “We look for inspiration on Instagram and social media sometimes, but mostly inspiration comes from our guest preferences, combined with our own ideas and current trends. There are high expectations for food these days, so we challenge ourselves to create a new dish every day to stay on top of the competition. People often come to Raffles Jakarta to try dishes they have seen on Instagram — for example, guests love our signature dish, the Singapore chili crab bun, for both its taste and presentation.”

Above: The Singapore chili crab bun at Raffles Jakarta (Raffles images courtesy of Raffles Hotels & Resorts)

Instagram has undoubtedly meant that certain chefs spend almost as much time on their phones as with their knives. Gordon Ramsay, David Chang, Massimo Bottura and Thomas Keller hold scores of Michelin stars and accolades between them, as well as hugely popular Instagram accounts. All play second fiddle, though, to British chef Jamie Oliver, who boasts a mind-blowing six million followers, with posts regularly notching a quarter of a million likes.

Above: Chef Gordon Ramsay finesses some dishes for a social media event (GP Images)

At this level of engagement, the impact is clearly enormous, but certain less well-known chefs have deliberately embraced ingredients for their aesthetic impact, rather than their texture and taste. Is this somehow selling themselves short? Compromising their craft for the sake of clicks?

Ultimately as a diner, if you pay for a photogenic dish that tastes disappointing, then clearly something is amiss. The sweet spot comes in serving a dish that tastes just as good as it looks. But only once you’ve Instagrammed it first, that is.

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